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Why Fish Don't Exist


The popular show Radiolab has chosen two new hosts to join Jad Abumrad -- Latif Nasser and Lulu Miller, a reporter and author with ties to Virginia.  Miller came to Charlottesville some years ago for a creative writing program at UVA and finished a book during her time with Virginia Humanities. 

It’s called Why Fish Don’t Exist, and it’s an unusual mash-up of memoir and biography.

Lulu Miller’s dad was a scientist who felt sure life had no meaning – and the only thing we could be sure of was chaos.  That’s the starting point for Miller’s book.

“Picture the person you love the most," she writes. "Picture them sitting on the couch, eating cereal, ranting about something totally charming like how it bothers them when people sign their e-mails with a single initial instead of just taking those four extra key strokes to finish the job.  Chaos will get them. Chaos will crack them from the outside with a falling branch, a speeding car, a bullet – or unravel them from the inside with the mutiny of their own cells.  Chaos will rot your plants and kill your dog and rust your bike.”

She was distressed by this truth – by the idea that, in the end, our lives don’t really matter, and then she learned about a scientist named David Starr Jordan.  He lived his life with enthusiasm, traveling the world to discover and name fish and storing each one in a jar.  He stayed hopeful in the face of terrible setbacks. In 1906, for example, an earthquake hit San Francisco, smashing Jordan’s jars and releasing hundreds of fish.

“He did not heed what seemed to be the clear message of the quake – that in a world ruled by chaos, any attempts at order are doomed to fail eventually.  Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and scrambled around until he found, of all the weapons in the world, a sewing needle.”

He then began to restore his collection, stitching a name tag to each specimen. To learn more about Jordan, Miller would travel to Lynchburg, where she tried to understand Jordan’s other obsession – eugenics – a belief that some humans were inherently better than others, and that the others should be cleansed from the human gene pool.

“The road to Lynchburg is flanked by endless gun stores.  Even the gas stations sell them.  ‘New Glock pistols!’ they say. ‘Shooting range!  Twenty-five percent off ammo!’  I was driving to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded, where thousands had been segregated from society, imprisoned and sterilized.”

In making the case against categories of humans she draws courage from a fact that fish experts have long recognized – that under their scales, the animals we call fish are wildly different from one another.

“Picture a cow, a lung fish and a salmon.  A lung fish, by the way, just looks like a very fishy fish.  And now ask yourself which two of these are most closely related, and most people will probably say the salmon and the lung fish, but the truth is, if you actually look beneath the distracting costume of scales, you’ll see something else, which is that the lung fish has basically lung-like organs. It has an epiglottis, it has a more similarly structured heart to a cow, and in all these other ways, it’s actually far closer to a cow.  It’s so counter-intuitive, but yeah – when you talk to people who study fish, most of the ones I talked to do not think that fish, as a category, exist.”

And her tale leads back to Charlottesville, where white supremacists rallied around the notion that people with dark skin and Jews are inferior and pose a threat to them. 

If you love the thoughtful, quirky quality of Radiolab, Why Fish Don’t Exist is a book you might also like – especially in its recorded form – read by Lulu Miller. 

Sandy Hausman's extended interview with Lulu Miller

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief